Bacteria as visual assets in sculpture

As far as the invisible bacteria are concerned, a big part of the debate about our cultural appreciation of bacteria has been whether we should care about the bacteria that lurk in our garbage, our water, our food, our air and our bodies. A few months ago, a study reported in the journal PLoS ONE found that even if we wash our hands and eat properly, our microbiota remain “indistinguishable” from those of non-human animals.

The study of microbiota, the community of microorganisms that live on and within us, is known as the microbiome. And while the human microbiome has been studied for more than a decade, the study of bacteria in art has been less explored. That is, until now.

Since a 2012 study of 16th century manuscripts, microbiologists have begun to recognize the potential for bacteria to impact human art. “In the 19th century, the art world became an integral part of the biological sciences,” said Amanda Bock, an art microbiologist at Harvard University. “And now we are beginning to understand that the biological sciences are interwoven with the artistic arts.”

In their study, Bock and her colleagues discovered that these microbial communities had a significant impact on the paintings. For instance, when bacteria were introduced into paintings, they were often beneficial to the artists. “When there was an increase in one kind of microbial community, it could make the painting more vibrant, more colourful,” said Bock. “When there was an increase in another kind of microbial community, it could make the painting less vibrant, less colourful.”

So what’s the takeaway? “The implication is that we should care about the bacteria in our body, and the bacteria in our art,” said Bock. “And we should be interested in how these microbes interact with each other.”

A piece of art’s microbial DNA might have its own cultural significance, as well. “When we look at the literature on the impact of microbial communities on art, we find that the microbes influence the art itself,” said Bock. “That’s really exciting because it suggests that the microbiota can influence our cultural understanding of art, as well.”

And in a society that seems increasingly enthralled by molecular biologists, the microorganisms in the microbiome could provide us with the next generation of bioethicists. “It’s important to recognize that the microbial community that’s around us, that’s living in our bodies, and that’s also in our art, has an influence on us,” said Bock. “And we need to understand how it influences us.”

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